Critics’ Picks

Carolyn Lawrence, Uphold Your Men, 1971, Screenprint on wove paper, 30 x 24”.

Chicago

“The Time Is Now! Art Worlds of Chicago’s South Side, 1960–1980”

Smart Museum of Art, University of Chicago
5550 South Greenwood Avenue
September 13 - December 30

In 1974, Detroit avant-jazz linchpin Phil Ranelin released the record The Time Is Now!. Appearing at the tail end of an age of urgency, Ranelin’s title echoed a string of 1960s and early 1970s albums including We Insist! Max Roach’s Freedom Now Suite (1960), Sonny Rollins’s Now’s the Time (1964), and, most famously perhaps, Joe McPhee’s scorching Nation Time (1971), named after Amiri Baraka’s corybantic spoken-word poem from 1970. “Nowness” was clearly in the air back then, and it is telling that an exhibition like this one—whose title references a 1966 photograph by Darryl Cowherd rather than Ranelin’s album—should seek to regain something of that urgency in our own fractious moment. It is that time again.

Featured here are artists, collectives, and institutions frequently overlooked by traditional art histories. The show focuses predominantly on work produced by African American artists living in Chicago’s historically Black South Side, whose most visible artists were perhaps the AfriCOBRA collective of Jeff Donaldson, Jae and Wadsworth Jarrell, Barbara Jones-Hogu, and Gerald Williams, among others. In its combination of abstraction and figuration, Carolyn Lawrence’s kaleidoscopic screen print Uphold Your Men, 1971, epitomizes the way AfriCOBRA’s artists fused psychedelic style with substantive social critique. Ironically, and inevitably, the best known of the sundry groups included in the exhibition—this milieu clearly privileged the common and communal over the individual—are the Chicago Imagists, a loose grouping of mostly white North Siders who showed their work at the Hyde Park Art Center. Their figurative, Surreal-ish sensibility frequently veered toward the carnivalesque. This exhibition rightly argues that this visual eccentricity was not solely the province of the Imagists but rather a vibe that exceeded the city’s racial barriers. What emerges is a fuller picture of a brash, vibrant, politically engaged, and woefully overlooked moment in postwar American art history.